Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Backpack or sled?

Group shot at the start of our Glacier Point run. Martina skied and laughed at our poor mode of snow travel as she glided past.
Our training trip to Yosemite gave me a chance to test out a system to use in the Homer Epic 100K, a race that I haven't really started training for yet (still doing more biking than running) and that seems like a long time off but in reality is less than eight weeks from now. I have almost as much fun mulling the strategy of these types of races as I do running them (mainly because winter races are so dependent on weather and quickly changing trail conditions, that any rigid strategy is bound to fail. Creating multifaceted strategies based on a large number of possible outcomes is a fun challenge.) But I'm still undecided on one fundamental aspect of the Homer Epic — how to carry my gear.

Beat on the freshly groomed ski trail. Conditions would have been perfect if it wasn't 50 degrees out, turning the snow to slush.
One thing I knew was that I don't love pulling a sled. In the past, pulling sleds in the range of 30 to 40 pounds absolutely prevented me from running in all but the best trail conditions or fairly steep descents. I'm just not strong enough; the anchor clamps down and I end up expending double the energy for perhaps 25 percent more speed. It's not sustainable at all. I'm effectively locked in at 3 to 3.5 mph, with an energy expenditure and muscle strain that feels more like 6 mph would on dirt trails.

I looked out over this vista and all I could think of was summer ... and miles and miles of wilderness trails.
I just assumed I'd want to carry a pack in the Homer Epic, so on Saturday I loaded up a Salomon pack with the gear I'd likely carry in the race. The rules require a few common-sense pieces of clothing that I'd carry either way — a big down coat and windproof pants to keep me warm in case I am injured on the trail and have to stop or slow way down. And of course I'll need several changeable trail layers — hats, gloves, mittens, extra socks, etc. The race support includes water only, and even then there are only three checkpoints in a hundred kilometers, so I packed two liters of water and 2,500 calories, although for the race I will probably carry 3,000 or even 3,500. (And honestly believe even this is on the hungry side. I'm a big eater in the cold and bonk quickly when I slow the consumption.) Then there was my safety gear, GPS and camera, foot-fix stuff, headlamps and batteries, knife and duct tape, and med kit. And to top it off, trekking poles and snowshoes strapped to the outside. The final weight was startling. I couldn't weigh it at the start, but my guess would be 17 to 20 pounds. Which makes sense, because it was all of my Susitna gear, minus the emergency calories and sleeping bag bundle.

Yosemite Valley doesn't see much direct sunlight in January
I did not like running with a 20-pound pack. It rubbed on my shoulders to the point that my collarbone felt bruised, and felt more awkward and tedious than my heavier sled ever did in Fairbanks. I ran a fair percentage of the first 11 miles out to Glacier Point, but lost my steam after that. The stats from my GPS were 22.5 miles, 3,245 feet of climbing, 5:43 trail time. The Homer Epic is 62 miles with 6,470 feet of climbing, and has a 24 hour cut-off. Last year's two finishers on foot, who are both faster snow runners than me (and much faster than me off the snow), finished in 21:30 and 23:10 respectively. Finishing the Homer Epic is far from a given; it's going to be tight and it's going to be tough.

Group leaving Glacier Point.
Obviously I will need to do more training with that pack if I am going to carry it. And of course I can look for ways to lighten the load, but most of this gear has been mulled extensively over multiple excursions. Even if the warm gear weren't required, I'd still carry it. I'd rather stay alive in the event I can't move, than move slightly faster when I can. The snowshoes are the most expendable item, but even those I'm quite attached to. If I don't wear them the entire race because of marginal conditions, I'll probably still wear them for half of the race just to ease the strain on my undertrained ankles and knees (because I can't train by running on snow.) Beat has suggested he might make a small sled with the same design as his large Nome sled. I'd still carry my water on my back, so presumably I could get my total sled weight below 15 pounds. This might be the best option.

Ditched the pack as soon as we stopped. Photo by Beat.
Either way, it's been fun to scheme for my only winter race this year. I really do wish I had a full 100-miler to look forward to, but the simultaneous newness and nostalgia of the Homer Epic is motivation enough. Now to get to more consistent training. Ah, training. The best snow race training I can do here in the Bay area is hard jogs up steep, sustained climbs. I have all those snow bike tours I want to do in Alaska, so I should keep riding my bikes, too. 


  1. Too bad you can't come up here. All the steep and snow you want plus we are an icebox. Haven't seen above 20 in weeks if not months. I admire your toughness. Running with 20 lbs? Um. No. Running is hard enough!

  2. Excuse me for asking, but, as an enthusiastic XC skier, a point of etiquette - by walking in the middle of the groomed skate ski tracks aren't you basically trashing the tracks for the skaters?

  3. Fair point!

    We stayed close (but not on the) classic track as much as possible (where the ski poles churned up the trail anyways). Unfortunately my sled didn't always cooperate (I hadn't put on any runners yet) and tended to run off the hillside or slide all over the place (I tried a number of things to rectify this on the trail with so-so success). In the picture however, the trail was extremely hard packed and icy, so we left no tracks at all. In the slushy sections there was no sled tracking problem and we stayed on the side ... We probably weren't always perfect, which is something to watch out for, since we didn't intend to spoil other people's fun of course!

    Btw, more damange was done by novice classic skiers skiing in the skating lane using their poles everywhere and walking up hills. Ski boots make some pretty deep impressions ... The road seems not a terribly good place to XC, since there are a ton of inexperienced skiers and snowshoers on it.

  4. I actually wondered if a skier would comment on that picture. Beat had just moved over to adjust his sled tracking and roll up his tights. It was bad timing. :)

    We did stay to the right of the Classic track 90 percent of the time, and I'm always mindful not to leave footprints where it matters. Still, I can't really sympathize with skiers who use popular multiuse trails and then whine about the variable conditions.

    When I was a beginner XC skier in Homer and Juneau, I was yelled at a few times for crashing in the tracks, snowplowing on the skate path, etc. Honestly, other skiers' finicky grumpiness was enough to turn me off of the sport before I really gave it much of a chance. I always felt like I was skiing on eggshells. As a snow biker/snowshoer, I would rather just avoid the groomed trails altogether; although in Yosemite you don't have much of a choice for a sled-dragging trip. It's either deep powder backcountry, or the Glacier Point trail system.

  5. Mary — I wouldn't mind spending a week or two where you live in the winter. Looks like a beautiful place. :)

    Your comment reminds me that I actually do hope to do some fastpacking in the Sierras this summer, and should probably start conditioning my upper body by training with a heavy pack now. Problem with the Homer Epic is that it does have a rather tight cutoff for runners, and I want to optimize my chances of finishing the race.

  6. Could you train a little bit on a sandy beach to get some ankle and knee strength? I'm not sure how close you live to the ocean (my run spot was less than 5 mi away), but a weekly mid-distance run 6-10 mi. on the beach and sand dunes helped me a lot for the Little Su.

    Matt and I are having the sled vs. pack discussion for our White Mountains trip next month. Many of our friends have recently decided to switch to packs saying that "a sled encourages me to take too much stuff." I've always been a pack person because of a permanent sensitive spot on one of my hips, too much pressure (even tight pants) hurts.

    Could you trim from your med kit? In the winter, all mine includes is an Ace bandage for sprains and a handful of Bandaids.

  7. OK, OK, you are both granted absolution. I know stalwart groomers work hard to make a nice smooth surface for skating in addition to the classic tracks on the side, sometimes puttering away in solitude into the wee hours of the morning, often paid by skiers' donations, and knowing that has made me sensitive to trail etiquette. By the way, if you want a fantastic total body (and brain) workout in as little as an hour (like you guys don't get enough exercise), try skate skiing. For an extended aerobic workout studies show it beats cycling and running, plus it works all those upper body muscles that get neglected on the bike and kind of opens up the thorax, usually hunched over the handle bars nine months a year. Mastering the technique part is also a pleasantly engaging challenge.

  8. I live on the inland side of the Santa Cruz Mountains; the closest accessible beaches to my house are about an hour's drive away — Santa Cruz, Pacifica, and San Francisco. I agree that sand training is optimal, but it's not worth the drive. In my experience hills are the next best thing. Seems to build all the right muscles, with the exception of strengthening ankles and knees for the continuous rolling on soft terrain.

    My med kit is mostly drugs and a few bandaids. I could trim it but in the grand scheme of things it weighs less than a Power Bar. What I should do is give more thought to specific food needs, maybe leave the snowshoes behind if trail reports are favorable, and trim from my extra layers if weather is favorable (in the case of Homer in March, this mainly means not warm and wet. Subzero temperatures are unlikely.) I'd still probably prefer to drag it in a sled. As for the WM, I would think a pack with the survival, fuel, and food stuff you'll need for 4-5 days would range well over 40 pounds. I know it would for me. That's a lot of weight in a pack.

    Durango Joe — yeah, in the case of Glacier Point, the grooming is paid for by federal tax dollars, and mostly seems to benefit tourists who pay $30 to rent waxless XC skis or snowshoes for the day. In three days out there, we saw all of four skate skiers who looked like they actually knew what they were doing. One of those was our friend who praised the trail conditions. As for learning to skate ski, I'd love to ... my current location is prohibitive to such activities right now though. No way am I going to buy new gear for something I might be able to do two or three times a year. I already own a sadly underused fat bike.

  9. Mud might also work for the ankles...although maybe the Bay Area doesn't get much of that either. Just being in really good shape is probably key.

    The WM trip we've got planned is 4 nights, my pack will likely be in the 25-30 lb. range. It would be interesting to compare our packing lists to see where we differ in weight. Maybe it is because I don't bring trekking poles or snowshoes?

  10. One of the differences I'm guessing is that you are not bringing full winter camping gear. I would, if only because I am always convinced I could be instantly taken down by a fall/injury and have to wait out a rescue. It's just who I am; I prefer safety margins, and it takes a lot to talk me out of them (I carried full camping gear in the White Mountains 100 for two out of three three years.)

    Plus 3,000 calories of carby food weighs a minimum of two pounds. I'd bring five days worth, that's 10 pounds. And if I was cabin camping, there'd definitely be luxury food items, so more than that.

    If you are on the fence about a big down coat, bring it. Best item I brought with me into the Whites, until I unfortunately burned the sleeve on the wood stove.

    Then again my mindset certainly skews more toward comfort than minimalism. A friend of mine vehemently tried to talk me out of most of the stuff I took to UTMB, then I took it anyway and used/ate most of it and was happy as can be (until I ran out of food and bonked.) The way I genuinely look at it is that my gear/fuel is what gives me confidence and allows me to stay out there longer, more so than my fitness. Others see it vice versa, and that's just fine.

  11. I would probably settle on whichever method chafes the least. At least I found that to be a real bother when running with a pack.

  12. I would probably settle on whichever method chafes the least. At least I found that to be a real bother when running with a pack.

  13. Hmm. I'd just get my sled really light if possible.

  14. Danni — Beat is building a cute little sled and I'm thinking that's the way to go. Going really light is so hard for me though. :P If the weather is warmish, even if rainy, it's possible I can get by on lighter windproof layers with a emergency space-blanket bivy and a plan A to keep moving. But if the forecast includes any precip at all or temps even close to 30 and above, the snowshoes are definitely coming along.

  15. Have you looked at these inflatable snowshoes?

    I've never seen them, but they won a U of Alaska Fairbanks inventors award last year.



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